Topic: AIF - 3B - 8 LHR
The Battle of Rafa
Sinai, 9 January 1917
Austin, 8th LHR, AIF, Unit History, Account
Inverness Battery supporting the 3rd LHB at Rafa, 9 January 1917
In 1919, T. S. Austin, wrote a history of the 8th Light Horse Regiment, AIF during the Great War called: 8th Light Horse Regiment. The book included a chapter on the work performed by the 8th Light Horse Regiment, AIF during the Battle of Rafa, Sinai, 9 January 1917 which are extracted below.
Austin, T. S., 8th Light Horse Regiment, (Unpublished 1919), El Arish - Magdhaba, pp. EM3 - EM5:
Christmas Day, 1916, saw the Regiment encamped along with the other units of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, amongst the tall date palms of the beautiful Hod Masaid, a few yards only from the blue waters of the Mediterranean. The men were in high spirits. They had shaken off their weariness by a long night's rest, and they now animatedly discussed their success at Magdhaba in all its aspects.
The casualties sustained had been gratifyingly light, and the mounted tactics with the bayonet had already impressed them as being pregnant with possibilities of an important new addition to the role of a Light Horseman in the future. The arrival of a camel convoy bearing Christmas gifts from the people of Western Australia also greatly added to the general pleasure of that day.
On Boxing Day, the Desert Column Commander, Lieut.-General Chetwode, visited the 3rd Light Horse Brigade in its bivouac, and warmly complimented all ranks on the work done, and indicated that before very long they would again be called upon to make a further effort. This information was received with enthusiasm. The troops eagerly awaited the word to move, and it was not long in coming. The New Year was ushered in with quiet but rapid preparations, and the end of the first week of January, 1917, brought definite orders for another bold enterprise.
The Turks, driven from the line of the Wadi-el-Arish, had fallen back on the line which marks the Turko-Egyptian frontier, and runs from the Mediterranean through Rafa, and thence in a south-easterly direction to the Gulf of Akabar. Except for a few isolated posts, the enemy strength on the southern portion of this line was negligible, but in the coastal zone he still held strategic positions in such force as to suggest serious opposition to our further advance. It was evident thus early that his main line of resistance was to run from Gaza to Beersheba, but he well knew that a firm hold of the high commanding country in the vicinity of Rafa would serve at least to gain time in which to develop the Gaza-Beersheba defences - if it did not bar the way to the plains of Philistia indefinitely. Furthermore, the Rafa position marked the dividing line between the Sinai Desert, with its heavy sand, and the firm, cultivated ground of Southern Palestine over which wheeled transport and troops could pass without difficulty. Thus, given due warning of our approach, the reinforcement of the Rafa garrison would appear a comparatively easy matter.
The development of the Rafa defences had been pushed on energetically, especially after the fall of El Arish became imminent, so that by this time a system of redoubts similar to, but on a much larger scale than those at Magdhaba, had been constructed. The positions were well chosen, and the trenches carefully sited, with a commanding field of fire on all sides. They were garrisoned by a force estimated at between 3,000 and 4,000, with numerous machine guns and several batteries of artillery - a fairly formidable force to cope with, considering the exposed nature of the approaches. Nevertheless, the High Command decided to attack these defences with a view to their capture.
The available force for this enterprise was the Anzac Mounted Division (less the 2nd Light Horse Brigade), the 5th Yeomanry Mounted Brigade, and the Imperial Camel Corps - totalling in all considerably fewer than 4,000 rifles - with three batteries of Horse Artillery and one of mountain guns. Only a very bold commander, with overwhelming faith in the superiority of his troops, would have sent this small force - with barely, if any, numerical superiority over the defenders - against such a strong position as the enemy were known to occupy. But General Chetwode was just such a commander, and although 25 miles had to be covered before contact with the Turks could be gained, he doubtless realised that, at the worst, the mounted troops could extricate themselves without great difficulty should the effort prove beyond their strength. The moral factor, also, was apparently not overlooked, and the effect that secrecy, rapidity and dash - the true cavalryman's aim - would produce upon the Turks, was probably estimated at as great a value as actual hitting power. Be that as it may, the fighting troops moved out on their mission with supreme confidence.
At midday on January 8th, 1917, the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, under Brigadier-General Royston, marched out from Masaid to the Divisional Rendezvous about a mile east of the Wadi-el-Arish. The men carried three days' rations for themselves and their horses, but otherwise travelled light. The Division, having concentrated, moved off in column and reached Sheikh Zowaid at 9.30 p.m. that night. A halt was made here, and at 1 a.m. on the morning of January 9th the march on Rafa was continued. Smoking, and even talking from now on till daylight was strictly forbidden, and these orders were carried out implicitly. At 5 a.m. the 3rd Light Horse Brigade arrived in the vicinity of the cross-roads marked 250 about five miles south of Rafa, and as day broke a glorious sight met the eye.
The hungry desert had been left behind, and the rolling grass and green cultivation of the Maritime Plain had taken its place. It was indeed the Promised Land. Small Bedouin settlements dotted the plain here and there, and it was good to feel that here at least were the habitations of men - if not exactly of civilisation.
The silence of the dawn was broken by the crowing of a single "rooster," which was replied to by a spontaneous burst of cheering and laughter from the whole Brigade. But there was work in hand before this peaceful-looking country was to pass into our undisputed possession. As the light grew stronger the formidable nature of the Turkish position could be observed. The redoubts had been constructed to form a kind of irregular semi-circle based on a high green hill called El-Magruntein, and but for a few gentle folds in the ground the approaches were all open and exposed.
For purposes of attack they were divided into groups by the Divisional Commander (Major-General Chauvel), "A" group forming the enemy's right flank, then came "B," "C," and "D" groups, in that order. Already the brigades had moved to a position of deployment immediately opposite to their allotted groups, and had sent forward reconnoitring patrols. These patrols soon came into contact with those of the enemy, and shots were exchanged which stirred the garrison to activity. Small fires immediately appeared throughout their lines, indicating that the Turks were making a hasty meal preparatory to meeting our attack.
To the Imperial Camel Corps on our left were allotted "A" and "B" group of trenches; to the 3`d Light Horse Brigade "C" group, and to the 151 Light Horse Brigade on our right "D" group, whilst the New Zealand Mounted Rifles were to execute an enveloping movement round the Turkish left flank. A slight pause ensued whilst the outer brigades swung round into position, and at 11.30 a.m. the 3`d Brigade deployed and moved into action, the 10'h Regiment (Lieut.-Col. Todd), on the right, the 3rd Machine Gun Squadron (Major C.L. Nicholas) in the centre, and the 91h Regiment on the left, with the 8th Regiment in reserve. "A" and "B" squadrons of the 10`" Regiment advanced, supported by "C" squadron, the other units adopting a similar formation. The advance proceeded mounted and in extended order, until the last ridge separating our troops from the enemy trenches was reached.
At 11.40 the leading troops came under long range fire. The 1st Light Horse Brigade was already engaged dismounted, and our Brigade, dismounting and placing the horses under cover of this last ridge, continued the advance on foot.
The attacking waves pushed on, supported by overhead covering fire from our machine guns, and the 10th Regiment linked up on our right with the 3rd Regiment (1st Brigade). The range was now 1,400 yards. The enemy fire grew heavier in volume as the attackers advanced, but appeared erratic, a fortunate circumstance which saved us many casualties over the open ground. Our batteries were now busily engaged in sweeping the whole Turkish position with shrapnel and H.E., whilst the machine gunners maintained a brisk fire.
At 900 yards the fight for superiority of fire began in earnest, and owing chiefly to the magnificent work of our machine and Lewis gunners, who had now rushed forward in support, it was soon evident that we were gaining the upper hand as far as our objective was concerned. The 10t' Regiment pushed on by rushes to 700 yards, in line with the 3rd Regiment, but three of our troops in conjunction with the 9th Regiment became held up by cross-fire from a redoubt on the left and their progress was slower. At 1.30 p.m. the 3rd Regiment asked for supporting fire to cover their advance. This was given whilst the gallant 3rd pushed on to 350 yards range from the enemy. The 10th again joined the South Australians, and from this point these two regiments worked in mutual support of one another. The ground here was very open, and afforded no cover whatever.
Having no entrenching tools the men scratched and scraped with their bayonets, and rooted themselves in as best they could, keeping up a steady fire until they had recovered breath. From here the advance was continued in short rushes under heavy enemy artillery and machine gun fire, until a firing line had been established by the 3rd and 10`" Regiments at about 270 yards from the Turkish trenches. The men dug again, but the enemy artillery redoubled its efforts, and swept the thin line with high explosive and rifle fire. The two regiments, having by their determined advance formed a sharp salient, and being temporarily isolated from the general attack, withdrew to a position about 100 yards back, on which every available man, machine and Lewis gun was placed.
The time was now 3.45 p.m., and for another hour the fire fight was maintained. The Turks fought back furiously, and for the moment they appeared supreme. Their aeroplanes hovered over our lines, and machine-gunned and bombed at will, whilst the defenders in the trenches seemed to have gathered renewed vigour. And not without reason. They now had a complete knowledge of the strength of the attacking force, and strong enemy reinforcements were marching rapidly from Khan Yunus to the assistance of the garrison.
Our gunners, particularly the Inverness and the Hong-Kong and Singapore batteries, had fought with magnificent gallantry - the latter having brought their mountain guns right up into our firing line - but they had almost fired their last shell.
Already orders had been issued that our force would retire, but before they could be put into execution a new development occurred which was to decide the day and give us the victory. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles, as has been shown, had been allotted the task of enveloping the enemy's left flank. Moving out wide of the defences, they had steadily worked round without attracting much attention from the Turks. They had pushed out a strong reconnaissance in the direction of Khan Yunus, and had seen the advance of the enemy reinforcements. Brigadier-General Chaytor, their Commander, a splendid soldier commanding splendid men, sized up the situation at a glance. The reinforcements could easily be dealt with if Rafa fell. With prompt decision he swung his Brigade round, and closing on the enemy's left, attacked it in rear. At about 4.45 p.m. the advanced troops of the gallant New Zealanders appeared on the sky line behind the enemy defences, and Brigadier-General Royston, seeing this galloped out in front of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, calling out, "Come on, lads! We've got them!"
With a cheer the whole line rushed forward with the bayonet at the several objectives, and presently a white flag waved above the enemy trenches, followed by many others a few seconds later. The redoubts were rushed and occupied. The Turkish dead lay in heaps, whilst the survivors of the garrison were taken prisoners.
Rafa was ours, garrison, guns and all. The Turkish reinforcements had retired, and the gateway of the Promised Land was now open.